As gruesome images and testimonies have emerged from Bucha, the Ukrainian town 35 miles northwest of the capital, kyiv, it is becoming increasingly likely that Vladimir Putin operated by a strict playbook in the north of Ukraine as elsewhere in the country. which served him well for decades, albeit at great cost to his army.
First, there are initial errors, including underestimating the enemy. Putin’s attack on the Chechen capital, Grozny, in 1999 was as unsuccessful as the attempt to behead Ukrainian leaders in Kyiv days after he invaded on February 24.
Whether born of excessive hubris or a failure of those around him to be frank with his leader about the limits of Russian capability, both in Chechnya and Ukraine, there was an overwhelming belief in the superiority of the armed forces of the country who saw them try to lead long convoys of armor directly to their targets and into repeated ambushes by their nimble enemies.
When the Russian paratroopers fell on Hostomel airport, on the outskirts of Bucha, they had initially disappeared from sight, locals said. They were supposed to advance rapidly on kyiv as part of an attempt to overthrow the government of Volodymyr Zelenskiy and install a quisling pro-Moscow alternative.
Instead, the Russian forces faced heavy resistance and had to fight hard at Bucha and elsewhere north and northeast of kyiv just to hold onto the initial ground they had obtained. The Russians reappeared after a few days, residents said, with fatal consequences.
Which led to the brutal corrective actions that Moscow took in Grozny and is now accused of doing in various places in Ukraine, born out of the belief that brute force through the indiscriminate use of artillery, which can result in the total destruction of a city, will bring a people to their knees.
The United Nations called Grozny the most destroyed city in the world in 2003 and between 5,000 and 8,000 civilians were killed during its siege. During the 2016 battle for Aleppo, Russia retook rebel-held areas of the city for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through a month-long aerial bombardment campaign, killing men, women and children.
In Ukraine, Bucha is the latest, but Chernihiv, Mariupol and Kharkiv came before, receiving similar treatment. First, a communication breakdown and the cut off of most electricity, gas and water.
What followed was the widespread bombardment of civilian targets, alongside the false offer of humanitarian corridors that gave and then cruelly disappointed hope.
Infrastructure was demolished, hospitals, bomb shelters and schools targeted.
The Ukrainian government claimed that Russia was engaged in forcible deportation of people from Mariupol to the Russian Federation. Many of these coaches boarding for Russia may not care where they are going, as long as it is far from the hell that is this port city.
The belief is that in the face of such torment, people’s will to fight will crumble and there will be an acceptance of an alternative government, however reprehensible.
Assad remains in power. In Chechnya, Putin turned to the chief mufti’s son, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has since backed Russian forces in Syria and Ukraine. Which comes to the end game: the normalization of new administrations.
This requires a level of cynicism and weakness from the West that Putin has long viewed as a banker: that the US and the EU will turn a blind eye to what has happened given the intractability of the new normal.
In the case of Ukraine, however, it is by no means certain that terror will prevail, with the forced regrouping of Putin’s forces in the east suggesting that he may have given up on his original ambition to total surrender. He may instead seek to establish himself in the east, if he can break down the resistance there. But it will still be hard work, especially if the national economy collapses due to Western economic sanctions. The other fly in Putin’s ointment, then, is that perhaps the West could stick to its claims of solidarity with Kyiv this time around and step up its sanctions regime. The names of Bucha, Mariupol and Kharkiv could well become a rallying cry for Zelenskiy towards this goal.